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"Starting the day off in a good way with a sunrise ceremony at Rama First Nation for @AnishNation Education Agreement Signing Ceremony," reads a tweet from MPP David Zimmer, Ontario’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation. An historic education agreement signed on Wednesday between 23 First Nations and the province is being hailed as a step towards self-governance as it gives full educational authority to Indigenous communities.

The Anishinabek Nation, a political organization of 40 middle and northern Ontario First Nations, has been working on the Anishinabek Education System plan for more than a decade and 23 of its member nations signed the agreement. The other 17 nations can come on board later if they chose.

“Wake up, this is no longer a dream, this is a reality, the AES is here,” said Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee at a press conference at the Chippewawas of Rama First Nation.

Under the agreement, teachers at participating First Nation schools will be paid the same as provincial Ontario teachers and for the first time, Anishinabek educators will be able to sign the graduation certificates of its students — before, provincial authorities did this.

The province will work with the AES, the Kinoomaadziwin Education Body, and regional education councils and local education authorities in every community. The AES will create education laws to govern itself and it will oversee the delivery of programs and services.

On reserve schools, each First Nation has power and authority over education from junior kindergarten to Grade 12 and they will be in charge of creating the education councils and authorities.

System-wide standards will be put in place and imposed, and, the AES will work with the provincial schools to ease the movement of students to off-reserve high schools. To go to high school, most Indigenous students in the Anishinabek Nation have to leave their communities.

The agreement is called a major step forward to self-governance, according to federal Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett, who was at the Rama signing along with her provincial counterpart Minister David Zimmer and Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter.

“This is the largest self-government agreement in Canada due to the number of First Nations involved,” Bennett said. “This marks a key step out from under the Indian Act.”

The Indian Act is a piece of legislation that was signed in 1876 and governs nearly all aspects of life for Indigenous people in Canada — everything from who gets status as an Indigenous person to education, land and resources.

The act also ensured nearly 150,000 Indigenous children were sent to residential schools — government funded and church-run institutions. For more than 100 years, children were taken from their culture, language and families and sent away to school. Many students were the subject of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Many were neglected and even starved in malnutrition experiments. The trauma from those days can be seen in generations of Indigenous families.

“They beat us but they’ll not beat us,” Madahbee said, recalling days from his own church run schooling. He urged Anishinabek nations to sign on and be a part of the AES.

“We are not being co-opted into something,” he said, adding they have spent years hammering out details. “This will enhance our treaty rights with the Crown.”

All students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are enriched in understanding by the exchange of knowledge from Anishinabek nations in history, culture and perspectives, said Hunter. Provincial schools will be supported to advance Anishinabek practices.

Hunter added that Indigenous elders — who hold an honoured and guiding place in First Nations culture — should always be part of a student’s day and not just for special events.

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